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Teaching with this Web site


Welcome, Teachers

Midwife Martha Ballard kept a diary from 1785 to 1812. Historian Laurel Ulrich analyzed the Ballard diary in her 1990 book, A Midwife’s Tale. Through the eyes of these two authors, we have a direct look into a post-Revolutionary household on the Maine frontier. The detailed evidence has allowed historians to revise their thoughts about American women in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in New England.

Teachers can use this DoHistory Web site, the book, and the film A Midwife’s Tale to supplement texts and give students a chance to work with selected primary sources, adding variety, excitement, and depth to classroom learning. From here, students may launch into their own investigations of local history. So, welcome. We hope that you find what you need.

What You’ll Find

At this Web site, you can bring Martha Ballard’s words directly to your students. Try the magic lens that changes Martha Ballard's diary from a handwritten to a transcribed version. There are also many other unique historical documents that we have scanned in and transcribed. There are examples of how historians use such documents in their investigations. Looking further, you will find tools and guidance for your students when faced with doing history with primary sources.


In planning for your classroom, you might find it helpful to print out our site map. You can then highlight and make notes on your print-out as you navigate through the site. It is not necessary to have read the book A Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Ulrich or to have seen the film based on that book in order to use and learn from DoHistory. We do, however, include film and book excerpts and references at appropriate points for those who wish or need to dig deeper and learn more.

Design Activities

As you design activities for your class, you can use the site in many ways. Some, but not all, of the possible activities may need active Internet access during student instruction:

  • make the searchable diary a core document to investigate life in the post-Revolutionary period.
  • focus on any of the many other original documents as primary sources to investigate.
  • print out selected pages to create a packet of support materials.
  • check in as supplemental reference is needed.
  • choose a historical investigation skill, find the appropriate help in the toolkit, and dig into your own local research project.
  • choose a theme and use the appropriate information in DoHistory as a leaping-off point into a larger investigation.
  • focus on A Midwife’s Tale and the material in the site itself as a unit of study.

Pick and Choose Appropriate Levels — Middle School through Adult

This Web site encourages exploration by users. The length of time exploring, conceptual levels of thinking required, and learning outcomes will vary throughout the site. For example, you could design a lesson for some students using historical maps (Maps and Pictures of Martha Ballard’s World) while other students could follow a complex paper trail in the historical investigation of a rape reported by Martha Ballard (One Rape. Two Stories). Some sections offer varying levels of choice and guidance, while others are simple presentations of information that could be used at your discretion in a myriad of ways.

Thus you may decide to use only a portion of the site. Or you may decide to individualize instruction by assigning different parts of the site to different students. We recommend that you explore the site first. Knowing the site well, you can more readily identify learning outcomes, plan activities, direct your students to the appropriate sections, and assess the results.


Martha Ballard’s diary offers insight into the stuff of everyday life, through a woman’s eyes. In this instance the woman was an active midwife, so we have the added bonus of seeing the realm of birth and death as women lived it in Martha Ballard’s time. The themes and topics emerging from the diary cross into many realms. Here are some of them:

This site also touches on two other themes around the historian’s craft:

You will find information about these themes scattered throughout the site and in Martha Ballard’s diary itself. The book and film, both titled A Midwife’s Tale, also touch on these themes in various ways. See the Browseable Diary, Search the Diary, themes and stories, the document lists by topic and type, and site map to stimulate more thoughts about possible themes that you might want to pursue.

Sample Activities

  • With no background information, students browse at will through Martha Ballard’s Online Diary. Citing specific internal evidence that they find in the diary, they try to answer the questions: What is this document? Who wrote it? When was it written? What events does this document describe? Where did the events take place? What was the writer’s purpose? What can we determine about the writer? Discuss.
  • Using the searchable diary, students search for entries about a subject of their choice in Martha Ballard’s on-line diary. They will find the keywords in the diary search engine helpful. Before completing any further research, students write a description of what they think is happening and the historical significance of the entries. After searching deeper for more information in DoHistory, A Midwife’s Tale, and other sources, students revise their assessments.
  • Have students practice reading handwriting by experimenting with the magic lens. Print out and give students a hand-written page of the Hallowell town records. Individuals or small groups attempt to transcribe the page in class or for homework. Give students access to How To Read Eighteenth-Century Writing. After the attempt, pass out transcriptions of the page so that students can assess how they did. Discuss. Find and make copies of a local eighteenth-century document. Try to transcribe it. Discuss transcription and historical accuracy.
  • Students can compare the 1799 Carleton map with a current road map of Maine. What is different? What is the same? What can we conclude about map-making at the time of Martha Ballard? What can we conclude about Maine at the time of Martha Ballard?
  • Divide the class into three groups for investigation. Group One watches the segment of the film A Midwife’s Tale relating to Dr. Benjamin Page and then reads pages 175-179 (or all of Chapter Five) about Dr. Page in the book A Midwife’s Tale. Group Two searches Martha Ballard’s Online Diary to read all of the entries relating to Dr. Page. Group Three explores Martha and a Man-Midwife online. As a whole, the class shares what it has learned, and then discusses the pros and cons of each medium.
  • Using How To Read A Graveyard from the History Toolkit, visit a nearby graveyard. Calculate by how many years the dates differ from the year of Martha Ballard’s death. Create a brochure for a graveyard walking tour for people interested in local history. Give copies of the brochure to the local library and historical society. For an example of a walking tour brochure, see A Walking Tour of Hallowell and Augusta, Maine.
  • Create a Martha Ballard timeline. Fill in the blanks with personal, local, and world events, or create an entirely separate parallel timeline of local dates. Display the timelines for reference. As other dates are encountered through the study of history during the year, affix them to the timelines.
  • Students keep a diary of their activities for one week. At the end of the week, as a class, they discuss the kinds and amounts of information that they wrote down, and how their diaries compare with Martha Ballard’s. Then each student, using her or his own diary, pretends to be a historian who discovers the document in the year 2500. He or she writes a historical analysis based on the evidence. At the conclusion of the activity, the class discusses what diaries as historical documents may and may not tell us.

These are only a few suggestions of the many possible activities that you could plan. As you browse through the site, more will occur to you. See also the bibliographies and links to other Web sites for resources beyond this site.

See also the teacher's guide for the film developed by the producer, director, and historian who worked on this web project:
the first page of the online teachers guide
the opening of the film part of the guide

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